Five plays that show how Releford shut down Bullock — and how KU's 'D' forced UNC into 'one bad shot'
Before looking ahead to Kansas' game against Michigan, I wanted to take a look back at Kansas guard Travis Releford's defense against North Carolina's Reggie Bullock in the Jayhawks' 70-58 victory over the Tar Heels on Sunday.
Bullock, who led UNC in scoring during conference play at 14.9 points per game, finished with five points on 1-for-7 shooting and 1-for-4 shooting from three.
His three-pointer and two free throws both came on plays when he wasn't guarded by Releford.
"That kind of effort on one of our best players," UNC guard Marcus Paige said, "is really one of the main factors in the game."
Afterwards, when asked about Releford, Bullock said it was "one of the best defenses I've played against."
"He did his film work," Bullock said. "He took me out of my game."
Here are four plays showing how Releford did it.
Let's start by talking about Bullock's tendencies: The 6-foot-7 small forward (No. 35) came in as a 44.3-percent three-point shooter while relying almost entirely on teammates to get those shots. According to Hoop-Math.com, 94 percent of his three-pointers were assisted, meaning — like KU's Ben McLemore — Bullock is primarily a spot-up shooter.
Only 20 percent of Bullock's shots this season were two-point jumpers, so the biggest concern for Releford would be getting out to the perimeter to prevent three-pointers.
We can see Releford playing to Bullock's tendencies starting with this clip from the second half (the YouTube video is posted below as well if the GIF is too hard to see).
UNC sets two screens for Bullock, and notice that Releford goes on the high side of both, running around them toward the perimeter instead of trailing Bullock along the baseline.
If Bullock were more of a threat to drive (or if Releford had not been playing scouting report), Bullock might not be defended this way on screens. Against Bullock, though, Releford is selling out to get to the perimeter. Notice how Releford doesn't hesitate to push around the screens towards the left side of our screen — and notice also how he never gets "stuck" on a screen either, taking a couple of blows while still moving toward Bullock.
At first Bullock thinks he's open and elevates to shoot before realizing Releford is right there. At the last second, he passes it to James Michael McAdoo.
McAdoo attempts to free Bullock again with a screen, but Releford fights over the top to contest the off-balance jumper.
"When I was coming off screens, he was there with me every time," Bullock said. "He was sliding right through the screens. He was just being aggressive and trying to beat me on the catch every time I caught the ball."
Releford was disciplined to stay with Bullock when he didn't have the ball as well.
Here's the clip of Bullock's only three-pointer. Releford and Elijah Johnson had switched after a screen earlier in the possession, and when McAdoo drives, Johnson takes a step into help.
This is a mistake, and McAdoo makes Johnson pay for it. The UNC big man dishes out to Bullock, who bounces in the open three.
Notice what Releford does in a similar situation in the second half when Paige starts to drive around KU's Naadir Tharpe.
Instinct would tell Releford to help here, and on many defensive assignments he would.
Releford is locked in, though, and he doesn't make any move away from Bullock.
Because an open Bullock three-pointer would be considered a success for UNC on almost every possession, Releford stays on Bullock to prevent that shot.
As we see, Paige loses the ball going up, and KU ends up with a steal.
There's another reason it was tough for Bullock to get open looks, and you'll start to see it with this next play.
Here, Releford once again fights over the top side of a ball screen, which guarantees Bullock isn't able to get some space for a three behind McAdoo.
Going over the top of a screen is dangerous, though, because it oftentimes can leave the defense using two defenders to guard a ball-handler.
This isn't an issue for KU, though, because of who's setting the screen. McAdoo is not a threat to receive a pass and shoot it from the outside (two three-point attempts all season) and he's also not a particularly good jump-shooter (45-percent two-point percentage).
These characteristics allow Withey to "soft hedge," meaning he can hang back a few feet to simply keep himself between Bullock and the basket should Bullock decide to drive.
With Releford preventing the three and Withey preventing the drive, Bullock passes to McAdoo, who drives to the rim.
Earlier in the week, UNC coach Roy Williams talked about KU being a great defense because it doesn't necessarily try to take the ball away from you, but it tries to limit you to one bad shot.
This is an example. KU's defense has forced UNC from a shot it wants (44-percent three-point shooter taking a three) to a shot that KU wants it to take (45-percent two-point shooter taking a shot over the 7-foot Withey).
McAdoo's attempt misses, and KU secures the defensive rebound.
Here's another example of KU dictating the shot that UNC gets.
Releford goes over the ball screen to stay close to Bullock and Withey soft hedges, which forces Bullock to pass it to the screener Leslie McDonald.
McDonald fires away from 18 feet against a recovering Withey, and KU trades a potential 44-percent shooter taking a three-pointer for a 32-percent two-point jump shooter taking a mid-range shot.
KU's defense wins. One bad shot.
Here's one final example of this, which also shows some strong team defense from KU.
Releford gets caught briefly on McAdoo's first screen, and when McAdoo re-screens, Releford once again fights over the top.
Withey sees Releford is caught up a bit on the screen, so he hedges harder out to perimeter to make sure Bullock can't get up a three-point shot.
Here, Bullock makes a nice play, bouncing a pass to McAdoo, who makes a strong cut to the rim.
Notice what happens, though. Seeing the play in front of him, KU forward Kevin Young slides over to help on McAdoo*, which gives Withey time to recover.
The result is a blocked shot and subsequent fast-break opportunity for KU.
* — This also reminds me of what Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper said after Friday's game about KU's defense. Harper said his biggest frustration was that his team started to drive to score against KU, when to beat the Jayhawks, you have to drive to dish.
Take another look at the photo with Young helping out Withey above.
Notice No. 15 on the wing? That's Young's man P.J. Hairston — a 39-percent three-point shooter.
This is exactly what Harper is talking about. If McAdoo drives to dish instead of driving to score, UNC has the opportunity for an open shot from one of its best shooters.
The ball-screen challenges for KU against Michigan will be different. Not only does Michigan have an All-American point guard in Trey Burke, it also has a player like Nik Stauskas who is dangerous setting screens then popping back to the perimeter for open threes.
In the UNC game, though, KU's defense was able to take away one of UNC's best scoring options thanks to relentless — and smart — defense from Releford.
"When I watched them earlier this year, and even back when I was being recruited by them, you just notice how hard he plays," Paige said of Releford. "You've got to respect a guy like that that doesn't stuff the stat sheet, but at the end of the game, he's making winning plays."